With just three of its original 50 members still living, the local American Merchant Marine Veterans Chapter 59 of Southwestern Pennsylvania had no choice but to end its existence after 25 years.
The three surviving members met one final time last week at Hawthorne Woods in Washington. Retired Washington County Veterans Affairs Director Harry Wilson spoke briefly, and the group then disposed of its belongings, closed out its treasury and made arrangements to donate its flags to other Merchant Marine chapters. “As we all aged, with many passing on, we dwindled down in membership,” said 87-year-old Edsel S. Bryner of Chartiers Township, the group’s secretary. “With one in a nursing home, another in an assisted living home and I being a full-time caregiver, (we) just had to make the decision to end our chapter.
“When our government called for volunteers to serve our country in 1944,” during World War II, he continued, “I quit high school as requested, took basic training at the U.S. Coast Guard station in Sheepshead Bay, N.Y. Following my training, I was assigned to the SS John Ericson, transporting troops to and from France.”
Bryner later sailed on a Liberty ship, delivering supplies to the Omaha Beach area in Normandy, France. All of the voyages he participated in were under the authority of the War Shipping Administration.
Bryner served his country as he was asked to do, he says, “Yet at war’s end, I was left to hitchhike home, was not honored by parades or by any organizations, was not entitled to the G.I. Bill, but was looked at like a ‘draft dodger’ rather than one who volunteered to serve his country.”
The Merchant Marine in peacetime is a civilian service that handles commercial cargo, but it was converted during World War II to an auxiliary of the U.S. Navy. While the Merchant Marine played a critical war role, ferrying fuel, troops and cargo to where fighting was taken place, the ships technically did not have a combat mission, and Congress never conferred official veteran status on its members.
According to Bryner, House Bill 1936, currently before Congress, is a last-ditch effort to award compensation to the few living mariners of WWII who have never received the G.I. Bill of Rights.
Joseph Talpas, another chapter member, resides at Hawthorne Woods nursing home. Bertram Zaniglio, the last member, resides at Strabane Trails assisted living in South Strabane Township.
“Since we closed our chapter, we have an invitation from several other chapters nationwide to join them,” Bryner said. “I am the youngest of the three, and not in the best of health. (I) will continue to support legislation for the good of the few Merchant Mariners who remain. If I am alive another year, I will join another chapter when my membership expires. I assume Joe and Bert will do likewise.”